Online teaching – The Nation

  • Federal Govt and other stakeholders should explore ways to make this happen in public varsities

The speed with which the word strike moves in Nigeria is still dizzying. Since the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) called off its nine-month-old strike a few weeks ago, the universities have remained closed for new reasons. Non-academic unions in the universities jumped on the strike bandwagon last week with a warning strike over uncertainty about how much of the N40bn overdue academic allowances promised by the government would go to non-academic members of staff. And most recently, the president of ASUU expressed fear about reopening the universities: “Our concern is rooted in the safety of our members. What happens to congested hostels, crowded classrooms? What flexible arrangements are in place? It is a situation of emergency. I’m not sure the universities can cope.”

Already, other levels of education have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For almost one year, there has, understandably, been no full time learning at any of the three levels of education. It is, therefore, worrying that universities that have been closed for the past nine months are still likely to stay closed because of the second wave of the pandemic, unless the Federal Government is able to assure stakeholders of safe opening.

It is unrealistic to expect universities to reopen for teaching and research, and for students to return to crowded living hostels while the pandemic rages, without incontrovertible commitment of the Federal Government to facilitate return of undergraduates to the campuses, especially with the number of coronavirus infections and deaths rising across the country.

In addition, the complaint by ASUU about lack of facilities for online learning deserves urgent attention. ASUU president’s statement that: “We are aware that some universities are putting measures in place, with alternative learning models…But these efforts are limited. They get to a point they can’t go further. ASUU has been talking about revitalisation since 2012. These are some of the areas where the assistance would have helped” deserves the immediate attention of the Federal Ministry of Education and the National Universities Commission (NUC), beyond rhetoric.

This is a time to look forward, rather than complain about matters that led the union and the government to negotiations for nine months. It may not be easy for the government to wire every campus for online learning while the pandemic rages. But it is never too soon to commence revitalisation of the universities from available funds that the government and the union have agreed upon.  Sincere and noticeable commitment to solving the problems militating against effective online learning in public universities, now fast becoming an integral part of university teaching in many private and state universities, should be a high priority for the Federal Ministry of Education.

Members of ASUU also have a major role in encouraging the government to embark on provision of adequate infrastructure for online learning with the enthusiasm the matter deserves. Academic and technical staff should see mobilising the government to fund renewal of learning infrastructure as part of their service to the community. For example, the enthusiasm that drove ASUU to create the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) payment system to replace the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) payment platform by government, perceived to be irrelevant to the special needs of universities, ought to be extended to designing affordable and reliable infrastructure for online learning in public universities, with over 80 per cent of the population of university students in the country.

We urge the unions and the Federal Government to nip in the bud the new spectre of strike by non-academic unions over sharing formula for academic allowances. And, while creating proper infrastructure for seamless online learning, it is important for the government to cooperate with the universities to do the following: reduce number of students in a room to, probably two; forbid squatting; provide avenues for classes outside enclosures; allow students that can afford tools for online learning to do so from home to enhance social distancing for those who cannot afford cost of internet or of smartphones or laptops; etc.

The task of revitalising the universities, especially making online learning an integral part of university culture is too important for the government and the unions to miss or ignore.

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